In a Post-Snowden, Post-Sony Hack World, Who Has the Power to Disseminate Secrets?

It’s not that difficult for someone to hack into your computer — and I know you think you know how easy it is, but trust me, it’s so much easier than you think. As a matter of fact, the attendees at Tuesday’s Tribeca Film Festival panel on “Secrecy and Power” were treated to a demonstration of exactly how easy it is, thanks to cyber-security expert Ralph Echemendia, aka “The Ethical Hacker.” Earlier that week, he sent an email with a link to a video clip to one of the TFF interns. As we all watched on a screen overhead, he opened up a window that displayed the intern’s desktop, his documents, his network. He turned on the webcam and the microphone. The poor schmuck had no idea. Most of those who are hacked don’t.

As Echemendia pointed out, it took Sony months to realize they’d been hacked, and there’s a good chance the government didn’t know until Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald told them. It’s not just a matter of poor security or faulty infrastructure; as panelist Valerie Plame — who knows a thing or two about leaks — explained, in the post-9/11 world, there’s just a higher mathematical possibility of people stealing and passing on secrets.

Bart Gellman, Valerie Plame, and Ralph Echemendia at the Tribeca Film Festival.

“It’s a numbers game. I think it’s absurd that we haven’t had more, actually,” she noted. “About five million people have a security clearance. About 1.5 million have a top-secret security clearance. So is it any wonder? To me, the big surprise is, thus far we only really know the names of Julian Assange or Edward Snowden.”

Or Chelsea Manning, a focal point of panelist Alex Gibney’s Wikileaks movie We Steal Secrets. In his eyes, Manning (whose 35-year sentence is, Gibney says, “unjustly long”) is a case study in the danger of viewing these matters through a black-or-white lens. “What was the damage, ultimately, that Chelsea Manning did by leaking those documents? And frankly, what was the benefit that we obtained? I’d say, in this case, the benefit far outweighed the damage. Even Hillary Clinton, in David Sanger’s book [Confront and Conceal], admitted that when it came to the case of Tunisia, and in some ways the Arab Spring, that a lot of what was leaked in those state department cables became extraordinarily valuable in terms of pushing things forward in destabilizing a lot of autocratic regimes.”

But it gets tricky when it comes to discerning what information gets disseminated, and when, and by who. No one on the panel takes the hard Assange line of being an information absolutist, which leads to head-scratchers like Wikileaks’ recent, indexed re-release of the months-old Sony hack documents. This organization once looked to topple governments; all they’re accomplishing anymore is prompting websites to post embarrassing Amazon orders, which hardly seem like the kind of journalistic bombshells that anyone’s fighting for.

Cynthia McFadden, Alex Gibney, and Bart Gellman at the Tribeca Film Festival.

And something’s off about that release anyway; Echemendia noted, “I have the actual full archives, I was working for the LA Times, and they wanted me to make it searchable, so I did, when the hacks happened. But there are some things that I find kind of interesting that are not in the Wikileaks archives. There are just certain emails that are not there, just certain things that I can’t find in the Wikileaks archive.” But he points this out as an observation, not a criticism; he explains, “I do believe in responsible disclosure vs. full disclosure,” which seemed to be the prevailing view of the panel.

Yes, all agree, there are necessary secrets. But they’re part of what author and Washington Post writer Bart Gellman calls “a complicated information ecosystem in this country, and it’s way more complicated than it’s usually described.” As he notes, the Snowdens and Mannings may get the headlines, but the vast majority of information is leaked by officials with top clearance, to advance agendas of their own — be they noble or otherwise.

So who should be in charge of that boundary, of deciding what’s disseminated to the general public? Like with everything on this topic, it’s complicated, and there’s no easy answer. “I would argue there is absolutely no one you should trust to do that,” Gellman says. “In fact, there’s nobody competent to do that. The President and his people are not entitled to tell us what we need to know in order to hold them accountable, as voters or as participants in a political society. And someone like me is now competent or accountable for protecting international security. So what happens is, there is a competition along the boundaries — in which they try to keep secrets, and we try to find them out.”

The Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 26. Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire.